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France: Reality Strikes

May 9, 2009 | by Rich Brownstein

This summer I was attacked on a Paris subway car -- verbally, religiously and, yes, physically.

My life is a study of contrasts and ironies. And one of the greatest ironies is that I married a French woman.

I was raised in Portland by classic liberal parents who went out of their way to fight bigotry and hatred. Yet I can remember more than one occasion when my father -- the paragon of an ACLU-ADL Jew -- said without reservation that the French were, to be polite, at the bottom of his list of civilized people. My father, who never dwelled on the Holocaust and had no relatives who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, held an unceasing grudge against the French for their mistreatment of Jews during that terrible time.

On my first visit to Paris, I almost immediately set out by train to visit Dacha.

These almost genetically transmitted thoughts simmered within me all my life, but came to a head the moment I met my wife-to-be, 14 years ago at a bris in Bel Air. Obviously, Sara was not one of "those" French. She was Jewish and her family had emigrated from Tunisia just a few years before she was born. Her family were, and are, no more French than I am an Angeleno.

During my first visit to Europe -- just after we became engaged -- I spent a few days in Paris getting to know my new family-to-be. I made a point of not patronizing the famous Parisian museums, monuments and cafes. Instead, Sara and I almost immediately set out by train to visit Dachau and Terezienstadt. From this example of my strong-headedness, my wife speaks in equally loathing and admiring terms of my contempt for everything French (except the kosher wine).

Subway Encounter

Fast-forward to July 2005, when myself, my wife and two children (ages 9 and 6) went to visit my in-laws for their 50th anniversary. For months my wife had been admonishing me not to even dare think to appear in public without a baseball cap covering (hiding) my yarmulke. Fearing my wife more than any unknown assailant, and having been repeatedly lectured by her about not endangering our children, I alternated between ignoring her directive and reluctantly agreeing.

Now bear in mind that French Jewry is no small potatoes. Today, France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after America and Israel. Paris alone has 350,000 Jews. Kosher restaurants and shops abound. And while only about 15 percent of American Jews consider themselves religiously observant, nearly 50 percent of French Jews consider themselves so.

Yet still, I was repeatedly told by friends-in-the-know that even the Chief Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, had decreed that French Jews are not to appear in public with their kipa showing, saying: "I do not want young people traveling alone on trains or the Metro to become easy targets for attackers."

On our first full day in Paris, on the way to a bus that would take us to meet a sister-in-law in front of the Louvre, Sara pulled a Portland Trailblazer's cap from her backpack and commanded me to don it, having already put a cap on our son, Yehuda. I put it on with the enthusiasm of a condemned man instructed to swallow cyanide.

But then, about 10 minutes into our ride, blending in as merely the second most reviled object of French scorn -- the ugly American -- I saw three handsome young Jewish men walking down the sidewalk in white shirts, black pants, and velvet kipas. I turned to my wife, handed her the cap, and told her that if those boys had the courage to walk like proud Jews with their heads held high in a city that once provided gratuitous accommodations to Adolf Hitler, who was I -- an American and an Israeli -- to cower under the pressure? Sara bit her tongue and slowly shoved the cap into her backpack.

I have never shaken the picture of Hitler standing atop the Arc de Triomphe, waving at the gleeful Parisians.

Two days into the trip we found ourselves in a subway under the heart of Paris on our way to the Champs Elysees, the same welcoming boulevard that accepted thousands of victorious goose-stepping Nazis after they strolled unmolested into France in June 1940. Same street, same country. On the many occasions that I have met friends and family at the Haagen-Dazs on that central thoroughfare, I have never shaken the picture of the Fuhrer standing atop the Arc de Triomphe, waving at the gleeful Parisians.

We -- Sara, children and my mother-in-law -- had traveled about four stops on the Metro, with six stations to go. My daughter Batya and I sat on the side closest to the door with our backs against it, one set of seats from the door. Yehuda and Sara were on the other side of the aisle, and my mother-in-law was across from and facing them. I was, of course, wearing my yarmulke, sans cap.

A non-Arab, 30-ish Frenchman entered the train. He had bushy hair down past his shoulders and glasses so thick that he could have been declared sight-impaired. I would not have noticed him, being engrossed in a conversation about math with Batya, had he not started yelling the moment he boarded. I glanced up quickly, understanding virtually nothing he was saying, and tried to distract Batya with the question of how many seconds there are between subway stops if the subway stops at four stations every five minutes. For a few stops the man continued to yell and I paid no attention to him. Batya, bless her heart, was caught up in contemplating the answer to the subway question.

Eventually the screamer noticed that we were speaking English. For the next minute or so everyone endured a barrage of cursing that would have made Eddie Murphy cringe. The voice got louder, and I heard something to the effect of, "Do not ignore me." I was then struck from behind on the side of my head, apparently a downward swipe.

I immediately jumped up and spun around. Moving forward toward the man, with at least five feet and a half-dozen passengers between us, I leaned in and inquired in a booming voice, which even frightened my children, whether he really wanted a piece of me. In that split second, I visualized taking revenge with my fist -- glasses shattered, mouth silenced. I convinced myself in that moment that this would not be much of a contest and it was the right thing to do.

My wife and mother-in-law, however, had quite the opposite opinion of what was going to happen. Sara quickly imposed herself in front of me and got into some sort of terse dialogue with the man, who never understood that she was my wife. All he wanted to know was why she would come to the defense of a Jew and an American. At the same time, even more impressively, my 70-something mother-in-law, who has had her share of health issues over the years, secured both her hands around my right bicep and yanked me off the train with the strength of a stallion. Before I could inquire for the third time, "Do you really want to mess with me?" I found myself off the train with Batya. Mother-in-law, son, and wife remained on the ride from hell.

As the train pulled away, I glared at my attacker, who was just as interested in leering back at me, his face practically pressed against the glass of the door. Then, as in some too-fake-to-be-believed movie, he grinned and brandished in front of his face a metal object. I don't know if it was a knife or a cross, but I do know that it's entirely possible that my Kung Fu theory was faulty and my mother-in-law had just saved my life.

Batya and I caught our breath and sat down to wait for the next train. She was not sure what had transpired, but she was very afraid for me. After I comforted her, two French high school boys approached us. They had been on the train with us and had disembarked with us. After huddling for a few moments, one of them in broken English shyly apologized for the incident. Speaking for his friend and himself (and all of France, he believed), the boy tried to assure me the attacker was not representative of all Frenchmen. Seeing that they were more embarrassed and shaken than I was, it did not seem the time to challenge his assertion by citing the general French population's enthusiastic participation in such hijinks as the Dreyfus Affair, French Nazi collaboration, and the current drive to appease France's 5 million Muslims with unceasing pro-Palestinian policies. Instead, I nodded graciously.

The attacker was yelling, "Kill you, kill you, kill you" as we got off.

A minute later we were on the next train. I assured Batya that the other three family members would be waiting for us at the next stop. Sure enough, with great relief, all our eyes met as the train pulled up to the next platform. I asked Sara why they did not get off the train when I did, and she said it was too crowded from her side of the train. I also think that she wanted to give the guy a piece of her mind, which I learned later, she did, and then some.

I was then debriefed about the man's diatribe. My wife later informed me that from the moment he got on the train he was screaming directly at me about Ariel Sharon and Israeli policies. For five minutes we were all treated to a classic French barrage of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and eventually anti-American drivel. Batya added that attacker was yelling, "Kill you, kill you, kill you" as we got off. I must have missed that.

Before reaching our stop (a station so ironically named that you would think I concocted it for this chronicle -- the "Franklin D. Roosevelt" station), my wife jammed the cap in my face and commanded me to wear it. I informed her as gently as possible that the last thing I was going to do as an Israeli and American, after being attacked as a Jew and American, was to hide my yarmulke. She knew better than to fight; she knew whom she had married.

Return to Zion

We all spent the rest of the day replaying the attack. My wife's family's basic reaction was that I was a fool for going out without a disguising cap. The only exception was one of my father-in-law's sisters, who, when she saw me again refuse to put on a cap, praised me for my "convictions."

I watch my in-laws, who saw their Tunisian city and homes blown to bits during World War II, and who uprooted their family to start over in France, emotionally torn apart by the notion of emigrating. They know it is the right thing to do, as exemplified by their oldest granddaughter, Carole, who is making aliyah this summer. But they toil with the quandary of what to do with five other grandchildren and a host of their own siblings who depend upon them in France. Their shame over what happened to me in the subway was far more painful than anything I felt. Yet they feel they cannot leave.

Last year, Ariel Sharon declared, "If I have to advise our brothers in France, I'll tell them one thing -- move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there, I think it's a must and they have to move immediately."

French politicians and Jewish community leaders dismissed Sharon's remarks as "inadmissible and unacceptable." Yet this year, 3,300 of France's 600,000 Jews will make aliyah -- tenfold the percentage of American Jews making aliyah this year.

There are some strange and dangerous energies pulsing through the world these days. And Jews, it seems, always catch the brunt of it. Ideally, our return to Zion will not be on the back of terror or persecution. And hopefully, those who need some encouragement to come home will not have to be pushed over the edge by a blow to the head.

The unabridged version of this article originally appeared on


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